A beacon of light in a land of tumult

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The new business school campus in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, has a central courtyard where 56 long aluminium cylinders are suspended to form an artwork called “Metals of Hope”.

Albert Alos, the vice-chancellor, says the architect’s concept is that the peninsular breezes blowing across the school grounds gently move the sculpture’s elements around.

“Things are not stagnant: it gives the idea of hope,” he says, adding with a chuckle: “You know, architects have these ideas that are difficult to understand – but I think it makes sense.”

Stagnation is hardly a defining characteristic of Lagos or its business school, which has revealed the full extent of its ambition by renaming itself the Pan-African University. Expanding fast and still scrambling for the money to do it, the institution is a mirror of the energetic, fluxional and infrastructurally impoverished commercial world around it.

It is also a barometer for the corruption that courses through Nigeria’s public and business life. The university teaches ethics and counts some of the country’s leading domestic and foreign businesses as its patrons.

The university, which was founded in 1991, has shifted much of its teaching activity from the congested Victoria Island business district to the rapidly developing Lekki Peninsula to the east. Armed paramilitary police stand on the public road a few hundred yards from the school’s premises, stopping some vehicles and letting others pass. Asked why there is a checkpoint there, a Nigerian member of the business school’s staff replies “the normal” – a reference to the force’s notoriety for corruption and extortion.

Prof Alos, a Catalan who has been in Nigeria for almost 40 years, says the new site is self-sufficient, with its own well, water-treatment plant and electricity generator.

These are all necessary in a country where the public infrastructure has collapsed in many places. The national power company supplies electricity to the university at night, but it is off more often than on during the day. Prof Alos compares the university’s environment favourably with the state higher education system, which is in a desperate state due owing to equipment shortages, staff strikes lasting months and violent student gangs known as “cults”. “It’s like having a culture shock,” he says of the businessschool.“Where things work, you can use the internet.”

The bigger classroom in the new premises means that the university can now take 70 rather than 50 students in each year intake for of itsits part-time MBA programme. The 21-month, full-time programme, which started in 2003, has proved less popular, with an intake of only 35 students each year. Prof Alos is aiming to recruit 60 full-time students next year, partly by charging what he describes as is calls a competitive price.

The full-time programme costs 1.15m naira ($8,732), compared with 1.3m naira for the part-time programme. Executive programmes for senior managers cost about 800,000 naira.

Prof Alos says approvingly that the MBA participants tend to be younger and “more malleable” than some of the executive tudents. The professor is a punctilious character who is annoyed to see students’ folders piled on the floor outside the classroom rather than placed in the pigeonholes provided. It is one of several issues he asks an accompanying colleague to note down and investigate.

The university’s pervasive sense of rigour and order is consistent with its strong links to Opus Dei, the lay Catholic organisation that promotes the idea of fulfilment through professional work. Prof Alos and about 15 per cent of the school’s staff belong to the group, which is accused by some outsiders of being a secretive society aimed at advancing its members’ professional interests.

Prof Alos dismisses the complaints about Opus Dei as “very old” and defends the university’s decision to provide an electronic link to the organisation through its website. He says people understand there is a business value in publicising their religious faith in Nigeria, where there are large Christian and Muslim populations and very few people are atheist or agnostic. He admits that the school has few Muslims – he claims this reflects in part the lower access to education in the Islamic north – but says there is no attempt to exclude them.

“There is a clear Christian identity,” he says. “But it’s not a Christian school.”

Like some other people involved in Nigeria’s private sector, Prof Alos praises the work of a small group of economic reformers brought into government by Olusegun Obasanjo, the president, after his controversial re-election in 2003.

He talks approvingly about the recent flurry of anti-corruption activity by the government. that is keen to convince sceptical creditors it deserves debt relief.Yet, as with many other people inside and outside business, Prof Alos can, without difficulty, list a range of huge, systemic problems in the country on which Mr Obasanjo’s six years in office has made little impression: an undiversified economy dominated by oil production, opaque government approval procedures for contracts, a shortage of places forlittle support for whistle blowerso expose wrongdoing, a weak judiciary and lenient penalties for law-breakers. those who have broken the law.

“I don’t expect major changes to take place very soon,” he says. “But I have a hope that, over time, if we are consistent with the reforms that are being set, things will change.”

Prof Alos adds that the private sector is “equally guilty” when it comes to corruption. He says this is mainly because companies feel “if you don’t do it, you don’t stay in business”.

Prof Alos tells of several donors who requested that their offspring be considered “properly” when applying to the MBA programme. He told the donors that the candidates should apply in the normal way, through an applications committee on which he does not sit. Some were successful, others not.

soyug diera story about a donor to the university who called to say his daughter was applying to the MBA course and that he hoped she would be considered “properly”. Asked who this mysterious donor was, the professor looks over the top of his glasses and replies crisply: “There are several.”

He says he told the donors their offspring should apply in the normal way, through an applications committee on which he does not sit. Some of the applicants were successful and some were not. In a telephone conversation later, he says he did not take further action by telling the university about the behaviour of the donors, who were known to him personally. He did not consider the donors’ says he did not see their conduct as unethical, because they were not “forceful”. They mentioned in passing that they knew someone who was applying, rather than making an explicit demand for help.

“It’s just that herein Nigeria many things are done by talking to the people above to see if they can influence things,” Prof Alos says.

The university, which was set up as a not-for-profit company and has annual revenues of about $4m, will voluntarily publish an annual report for the first time this year. Asked if the report will strike a blow for greater transparency by listing university executives’ pay, Prof Alos peers over his glasses once. “I don’t think we will be giving details of that.”

The professor, who was 65 last year, has just been replaced as dean by Juan Elegido, a fellow Spaniard. Prof AlosHe is remaining as vice-chancellor to try to set up departments such as economics, management and technology and media. Before then, he says the school needs to raise almost $500,000 to add to on top of its existing $5m investment in the new site.

Across the main foyer from the “Metals of Hope”, Prof Alos waves his hand at an area of jungle that is part of the university’s 1km-long site. The bush may soon be claimed by a characteristically Lagosian commercial assertiveness that sees opportunities for expansion even amid cash shortfalls.“We have built 250 metres,” he says, waving his hand at the palm trees. “So we can build three times more.”

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